Tuesday, September 05, 2006

 

Ryan Howard: Chase for History

Ryan Howard has 53 Home Runs. It's September 5th. Over the past few weeks Howard has put the Phillies on his back and taken off at a dead sprint towards the tape in this year's wild card race. That in and of itself is news. However, when can the playoff hopes of a team take a back seat to a different story?

Here's a hint: When that story involves the most hallowed record in a sport that values records more than anything else.

In the 34 games since Bobby Abreu was shipped to the Yankees, Howard is only batting .380, with 18 homers and 47 RBI's. The Phillies are 21-13 in those games and only If he keeps his average (.309) above the .300 mark, gets 16 more RBI's (he has 134) he'll become only the fifth player in history to hit at least .300 while driving in 150 and hitting 50 bombs. The others? Hack Wilson, Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth, and last and certainly least, Sammy Sosa. That's pretty good company right there.

Forget the MVP race, if the Phillies, who are currently 70-68 and 1.5 games back in the wild card race, rally to make it to the playoffs, the award is his.


But none of that is really important.


Howard has 24 games left in his season. He needs 9 homers to break the record. He is a man who hits bombs in bunches, and by my guess is good for at least 2 more 2-HR games this year. Personally, I think he'll break the record with about 5 games to spare, and I think he'll get to 61 before the 154 game mark (I just threw that in to silence the Babe Ruth apologists, or as I like to call them, "senile old men.")

There are plenty of people out there, the vast majority actually, who, despite all the skepticism surrounding it, see Barry Bonds' 73-homer season as the record. People that don't agree with that point usually point to Mark McGwire's 70-homer season. Others still might say Sammy Sosa's years of 64 and 66 are record holders. They're all wrong. All of those seasons came between 1998 and 2001, a high water mark era for steroid usage if there ever was one.

Mark McGwire was in his mid 30s when he broke Maris' record. Sosa was nearly 30. Bonds, it's been well documented, was 37 when he hit 73. Howard is 26. He's in the best physical shape he'll ever be in. Perhaps more telling is the fact that he's been the same size since he was in the minors. He's a big guy, but by no means is he cut, and, more tellingly, his head seems to fit his body. Not only that, he's also a nice guy and seems like he genuinely cares about the game and its sacred records.

Bonds, when he came into the bigs, was about 175 pounds, if that, and was a speedy leadoff hitter with a little bit of pop in his bat. Sosa was a power hitter, but a wiry one, far more similar to Alfonso Soriano. Both bulked up bigtime before they had their record-setting seasons. McGwire, while a pretty big guy, got noticeably bigger, stronger, faster and better at at time when the inverse should have been the case. Howard is 6-5, 250, and looks as if he sneaks a Krispy Kreme or 3 between at-bats. He came up through the minors when steroid testing was becoming far more stringent, and his career in the majors started when suspicion of steroid usage among players was at its peak. Put simply, he hasn't played in the majors during a time when steroid users could feel safe.

This doesn't mean that Ryan Howard is clean. There's even a good chance that he won't break the record, but instead hit 59 homers or so. There's a chance the Phillies won't make the playoffs and he won't win the MVP. There's a chance all these things might happen.

Me? I'm praying he hits 64, drives in 160, and pushes the Phils to the series.

To hell with Bonds, Sosa, McGwire and the rest of that filthy brigade of cheaters. I'll take Ryan Howard and his clutch, very likely clean play any day of the week.


The Mauler

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